The new Collinwood Recreation Center in Cleveland, OH, shows the transformative potential of turning a vacant big box store into a community gathering space. Local firm City Architecture took a sprawling 66,000-square-foot building and created an icon of local design that also helped rejuvenate the surrounding neighborhood. “This is a fringe part of the city next to suburban communities,” says Paul Volpe, the firm’s founding principal. “The center gives people hope and a sense of place, it gives kids somewhere to go”—and it provides the kind of successful public redevelopment other areas could follow.
Big box stores have long been associated with decaying suburban sprawl. “These companies could care less what they’re putting into the real estate,” says Volpe. “They’re thinking of selling Kleenex and t-shirts, then they just walk away and the buildings sit vacant and cities and suburbs become abandoned.” As a result, some 35 percent of the 870 million square feet of empty buildings nationwide are estimated to be big box stores, many of them unused for years.
Such was the case with the $11 million Collinwood Recreation Center, a former Big Lots store that had been vacant for a decade. As part of a long planning process, the city settled on this ideal location—alongside Lake Erie and on a busy boulevard—and the architects urged the adaptive reuse angle. Once the site was chosen, an intense community-driven process brought city officials, architects, and local residents to the table to decide on the appearance and functions of the building.
The result is a project of striking aesthetic and sustainable ethos that is targeted to community use. Glass panels front the building, mimicking the waves of the nearby lake, and a new traffic light and crosswalks link the center with a state park across the street. Solar cells provide hot water for showers, rain water is collected and used to irrigate trees in the new landscaping, and the store’s dinged and dented aluminum panels were painted red and now sheathe the new center—all of which helped achieve a LEED Gold rating.
Inside, where bins of bargains once stood, children now run across the basketball court’s bamboo floors and slip down the waterslide in the indoor swimming pool. There are exercise rooms, a three-lane walking track, and art installations by local artists, such as stained glass panels and a sundeck fence made of recycled shipping containers. Interior colors imitate the surrounding natural environment, from the deep blue of the lake to the goldenrod yellow of flowers growing outside.
The only problem with the center? “The place could be bigger; it’s at maximum capacity,” says Volpe with a laugh. “It’s extremely well used.” The fact that the building is always packed with people speaks to its popularity and the success of its design.
Other communities have also recreated vacant big box stores to great acclaim. Hennepin County in Minnesota turned an empty big box supermarket into the spectacular Eden Prairie Library. Another town in Texas took an abandoned Walmart warehouse and created the McAllen Main Library, the largest single-story library in the country, and a Missouri town made a big box store into the amazing new home for the Joplin High School after it was leveled by a tornado.
Indeed, Collinwood—and other similar buildings—seem like perfect ways to combat sprawl while creating active neighborhood spaces. “A project like this is more than just a good deed, it’s actually a solid investment,” says Volpe. “It removes a vacant building, it cleans up blight, and you’re doing it for less money than you could build a new one of comparable quality. The end result is a win-win for everybody, and it’s a model I’d say we ought to run with.”